Going to extremes to drive home a message about respect, open-mindedness, and discovering who you want to be (North Baltimore, 1975): Bursting-in-song is one way to describe this enormously entertaining historical novel.
Set in 1975, a notable year for rock n’ roll music, the year John Lennon’s Rock N’ Roll album was released, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, along with George Harrison, Patti Smith, Eric Clapton, Queen. An eclectic, inclusive year too as Love Will Keep Us Together (Captain and Tenillle), Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell), Laughter in the Rain (Neil Sedaka), and James Taylor’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) also came out. Music, inclusiveness, broad-mindedness are Mary Jane themes.
Jessica Anya Blau curated a playlist of the thirty-three songs in her fifth sing-its-praises novel. To give you a sense of the awakening of the novel’s main character, Mary Jane, and the uplifting feelings the reader experiences, you might want to listen to the first song on the list: Morning Has Broken, sung by Cat Stevens. The lyrics, accompanied by the beautiful Nature images in this video, match fourteen-year-old Mary Jane’s feel-good transformation during one life-changing summer:
Mary Jane Dillard’s coming-of-age story gives us an intimate look inside two very different families: Mary Jane’s very conservative, play-by-the-rules, narrow-minded, middle-class family in which the only rule is to be “obedient” and “respectable” versus the new Cone family she becomes part of when she accepts a summer job as a nanny for a precocious, precious, curly red-headed five-year-old girl, Izzy, whose family is very liberal, broad-minded, hippy-ish, and doesn’t follow conventional rules. The furthest thing from respectable if the Dillards only knew.
This multifaceted novel is fun to read. Entertaining us through music and love, humor and outrageousness, it also conveys serious messages about respect and belongingness, benevolence, tolerance, and prejudices.
The title has multiple meanings too. Foremost is the protagonist who awakens to how lonely she was in her unaffectionate family until she met the Cones. Her mother is “stiff” as an “ironing board”; her lawyer father barely aware of her. An ultra-conservative, conventional family and an off-the-charts, free-spirited one couldn’t be more extreme. Which is the point.
The two families live on the same street in the same Roland Park suburb her mother says is the “finest neighborhood in Baltimore” gives that impression from the outside, designed by the Olmstead Brothers of Central Park fame. Dig deeper and you’ll learn that this planned community was designed for whites only. Blau doesn’t have to tell us that, she shows us what “segregated politeness” looks like and then the chilling descent. Blau used to live and teach creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which explains why we feel she’s imagined this place fifty years ago authentically. From California, a Berkley grad, thus her familiarity with hippydom.
On Day 1 when sheltered Mary Jane enters Dr. and Mrs. Cone’s house to meet Izzy, her first reaction was: “Do people live like this?” Remarkably cluttered and dysfunctional unlike her orderly, regulated house, she empathizes with a little girl being brought up in this atmosphere, “a world that was different than mine,” but she doesn’t show it. Nor tell her in-command homemaker mother who loves choir music, Broadway show tunes, and plays the guitar (music their connection), immediately picking up on Izzy’s need for stability and basic nurturing like home-cooked meals Mrs. Cone seems incapable of preparing. When she shows Mary Jane Izzy’s bedroom decorated with Impeachment stickers, we’re reminded 1975 was also the year Gerard Ford was sworn in as the 38th President after Nixon’s resignation. How utterly relevant fifty years later.
Little girl stuff is here too: nostalgic toys like Etch-A-Sketch, an Erector Set, a Snoopy poster, and stacks of coloring books. Coloring is the first activity Izzy wants to do with Mary Jane. Fine idea except the coloring book she chooses is the Human Body Coloring Book for Kids and they’re in the kitchen with Izzy’s parents! Dr. Richard Cone, a psychiatrist with “goaty sideburns,” clearly adores Izzy, but the drawings are graphic and embarrassing for an adolescent girl who’s never even kissed a boy. Grinning and bearing it, Mary Jane puts her charge’s needs above her own. Which is why Mary Jane is such a winning protagonist.
A week later the Cones’ house is “shimmering and gyrating.” Dr. Cone explains to Mary Jane “doctor-patient confidentiality” trusting her not to say a word about his famous client, Jimmy, or his famous wife, Sheba, coming to live with them so Jimmy can finally overcome his addiction. Who are Jimmy and Sheba? He’s a rock n’ roll star and she’s a long-time actress Mary Jane knows from TV. Sheba (and Mrs. Cone) dress promiscuously, and Jimmy’s shirt is always open. Who’s Mary Jane? A sweet, innocent girl who wears saddle shoes and oxfords at a private all-girls school. Hmmm.
As Dr. Cone occupies himself with Jimmy’s care and Mrs. Cone and Sheba become girlfriends, soon Izzy is calling Mary Jane and herself “snuglets,” feeling safer from a Witch. Who or what is the Witch? What we interpret is the witch is Izzy’s way of expressing her anxiety about something.
To help Jimmy withdraw from the high of drugs he consumes quantities of sweets and junk food. Do you remember the old-fashioned candy Mary Janes, still around after a century? The title could also refer to that.
Dr. Cone is ahead of his time medically approving the use of marijuana to calm Jimmy’s uncontrollable “whirly-twirly-creative-genius brain,” revealing another meaning of the title. Did you know Mary Jane stands for marijuana? That the song Mary Jane, sung by a rock artist in the late seventies, wasn’t a love ballad to a woman but to marijuana?
Between Jimmy’s “cello sounding voice,” Sheba’s voice like “notes landing on my skin like feathers,” and Mary Jane’s “gorgeous” (news to her) harmonizing voice, this unconventional group becomes “an unbreakable chain of love” – although we know chains can break. Sheba loves and accepts Jimmy, isn’t afraid to show her affections, while he’s a roller coaster of emotions and an apologetic abuser of inappropriate language and behavior. Above it all, Mary Jane feels “the thrill and intimacy of being in on things with adults.”
A page-turning set-up, but the only way the reader can appreciate its deeper meaning is to follow Mary Jane: push aside prudishness, squeamishness because that’s what Blau is asking us to do. Then you’ll see how important valuing a young adult’s “thoughts and feelings and abilities” – treating them as a “real person” – can be.
Spontaneity is ever-present. Love and Music make the novel sparkle, and dreamily could make the world go round. Ignore the Cones’ alternative lifestyle as nothing compares to the ugly prejudices of Mary Jane’s parents, newly discovered thanks to the Cones and a charismatic couple trying to find themselves in a bewildering world.
“Being a doctor makes up for being a Jew,” Mrs. Dillard says. (She doesn’t know he’s not a traditional doctor.) “What do they have to make up for?” Mary Jane asks. To which her father says Jews are “a different type of person.” He goes on to say Jewish people are “another breed of human. We’re poodles. They’re mutts”! To which Mary Jane replies to her religious family: “So Jesus was a mutt?” Mary Jane is aghast at her parents’ attitudes having studied the Holocaust, painfully realizing that “sometimes the people who kept those ideas alive were the people you lived with.”
So, which family is a Good or Bad influence?